Thursday, 8 March 2018

How to reduce plastic pollution by rethinking the way we wash our clothes

Reducing the amount of plastic we use seems to be top of every eco-conscious agenda at the moment, and with good reason. Whether we’ve been spurred into action by the shocking footage of polluted seas in Blue Planet 2 or by litter in our own communities, there is no denying that our reliance on single-use plastic has grown into a huge problem. While bottle deposit schemes and a return to more easily recycled food packaging like aluminium or glass are all moves in the right direction, it’s easy to overlook another source of plastic pollution; the microfibres from our clothes.

Synthetic fabrics like polyester and elastane are essentially a type of plastic, albeit in a less noticeable form than a drinks bottle or food packaging. When we wash synthetic clothes, microfibres can be washed out of the fabrics and into the oceans, as they are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants. This article about microfibre pollution in the oceans will give you plenty of in-depth information, if you want to know more.

Even if you prefer to wear natural fibres (I’m not too keen on synthetics as they are not breathable), they will usually be mixed with elastane for stretch garments like underwear, leggings, vest tops or anything figure-hugging. Elastane replaced the latex-based elastic used in the first half of the 20th Century which was notoriously perishable; elastane’s high performance, long-lasting fibres has saved countless people from the embarrassment of a broken knicker elastic!

For a week of my Wardrobe Diary, I focussed on whether my clothes were made from fibres containing plastic, and the results were quite striking. I wear a lot of cosy, stretchy base layers in the winter and these all contain elastane. Quite a few of my vintage dresses and sweaters are polyester, and I’m not keen on the idea of giving up on stretch underwear in order to go plastic free!

Throwing away clothes that contain fibres we’ve come to rely on for their comfort and convenience isn’t a solution, so what can we do instead? A couple of innovative solutions are available; the GuppyFriend and the Cora Ball.

The GuppyFriend is a fabric bag designed to trap microfibres before they leave your washing machine and enter the water supply. A reasonable load of laundry fits comfortably inside, and it doesn’t affect the way the machine washes your clothes.

The Cora Ball is designed to catch fibres as the clothes move around your machine. I haven’t bought one yet as the GuppyFriend seems more suited to my washing needs. The Cora Ball site advises against using in a delicates wash or with strappy tops or tights, but would be great if you are regularly washing fleeces or other fluffy synthetic items.

The idea of developing attachments for the washing machine itself to do the same job has been raised, and I’m sure there are prototypes in the works, but it’s good to be aware of changes we can make now. In the same way that we are all getting used to remembering our cloth shopping bags or reusable water bottles, this is a small change we can make to our regular habits to minimise our negative impact on the environment. It might not be suitable or feasible for every wash, but if we’re washing our Lycra-based sportswear separately anyway, we could probably pop it in a bag first. Every small positive change adds up to a big impact, and this doesn’t require a radical change to habits or lifestyle.


  1. How many items can you fit in there and still get them clean? I used to wear mostly natural fibres, and then I took up running... So much sports kit to clean all the time now!

    1. It's big enough for a medium-sized load of laundry, so several sets of running gear should wash just fine. The only drawback I've found is that the spin cycle might not be quite so efficient if you're washing heavier items like sweatshirts.

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  3. Wow that's really informative post we never though of it that even washing cloths can produce the pollution.

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